Interview: Fire Island Filmmakers on Inspiration from Austen, Casting Comedy Legend Margaret Cho and the Chance for a Trip Back to the Island

On a broader scale, director Andrew Ahn’s new comedy Fire Island is about a group of multicultural gay men who travel from New York City to the Long Island-adjacent gay party community that has been a gay mecca since the late 1960-early 1970s. The film was written by and stars Joel Kim Booster, the openly gay stand-up comic who loosely based his work on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. He also uses the movie as an excuse to throw a spotlight on his longtime friendship with standout “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bowen Yang. 

The pair play best buds with very different goals about meeting people on Fire Island—Yang wants to find love, while Booster is looking for hot, meaningless sex. And it’s these misaligned goals that are at the center of some of the best scenes of Fire Island. In addition to this band of eclectic friends, the film also features Margaret Cho as the den mother of the otherwise all-male cadre staying at her house.

Booster began his stand-up career opening up for plays in Chicago’s theater scene, before releasing his 2018 debut stand-up album, Model Minority (his new Netflix special is set to launch later this month). Before delivering the quiet, beautiful drama Driveways (featuring one of Brian Dennehy’s final on-screen performances), Andrew Ahn served as editor on director Jeffrey Schwartz’s I Am Divine, a great documentary about John Waters’ regular actor/muse Divine, then made his 2016 feature, Spa Night.

I sat down with the pair recently to discuss the real Fire Island, their version of it, and the importance of the central friendship to the film and to Booster’s success. Enjoy our talk…

I’ve never been to the real Fire Island, but I’ve heard of it—it’s iconic. I always envisioned it as a place where people could go and enter a judgement-free zone. But your film showed me that they just don’t judge you for being gay there; everything else is fair game. Was that one of the reasons you wanted to tell this story?

Joel Kim Booster: Yeah, for me it’s always been fascinating to see how gay men can repress each other when there’s no one around to oppress us.

You always find somebody.

JKB: You do. We form these power structures so that there’s someone below us on the ladder. It’s an unfortunate part of our culture, and I wanted to go in and make this movie to show the balance. Your chosen family can lift you up and support you and elevate you, even in the face of this class struggle of gay body fascism and racism and classism.

To your knowledge, has that always been the case there? Or is this a new phenomenon that comes with money becoming a big part of that community lately?

JKB: Well racism has existed for a long time; that’s probably always been there. The rest has kind of crystalized because of the internet and the ways in which dating patterns have been itemized lately. I also think we’re re-entering a moment now of political galvanization that since gay marriage was legalized, we’d lost in a lot of ways. Without something to unify us against something, that does break down how we treat each other in the community. Unfortunately, I think we’re entering into a new phase of that now.

What was the jumping off point in wanting to tell this story and then you two finding each other, other than Jane Austen?

JKB: Well Jane was genesis for it. The first trip that Bowen and I did take to Fire Island together, I brought Pride and Prejudice to read. It’s a story I’ve loved since I was a kid, I watched the BBC miniseries every year with my mom; I love the Joe Wright-Keira Knightley version; but I’d never read the book, so I brought it with me to read on the trip. As I was going through it, I’d turned to Bowen and say, “This is amazing. This is so similar to our experience. How could Jane Austen possibly have known that she was writing about a 21st century, gay male experience?” It started as a joke, and I’d say “Wouldn’t it be funny if I wrote an all-gay Pride and Prejudice, set on Fire Island?” It was never really a serious idea. But every year, we’d come back to Fire Island, and I’d bring a different Jane Austen book, and I’d begin to crystalize how prescient what she was writing about was to my own experience, in which the way gay men set up classes within our community, and how we communicate across class lines, and that felt very relevant. Eventually, I had the time and wrote the script.

Andrew and I connected after Spa Night had come out. It was a Twitter thing; I wrote “I love this movie,” and it was a revelation for me at the moment in terms of representation as a gay Korean person. We’d met once socially for coffee, and from then we were Twitter friends.

Andrew Ahu: I ran into Joel at random things, and we were doing our own things and I got the script for the feature version of Fire Island. It was a year into the pandemic at that time, and I hadn’t seen my friends or gone out dancing or drinking, and to see queer Asian-American joy in the screenplay reminded me of how important that part of our lives was. I really wanted to make the film so I could show the meaningfulness of our community to folks. Friendship and community are super important.

I knew nothing about this movie before I started watching it, but I could tell almost instantly that you and Bowen were friends, and this was an excuse to have two friends work together. That’s great!

JKB: Especially for Bowen and I too, in terms of the industry and where we’re at in the industry right now, conventional wisdom would say that we’d go in for the same parts because we check a lot of the same demographic boxes. So we never have opportunities to work with each other, because so often there’s not room for both of us in a script. They’d say “We have our gay, Asian character. We don’t need two.” And that always felt really offensive to both of us because we are very different, and we’ve always wanted to work together, so I said “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”

Well as much as it’s the celebration of gay Asian friendship in general, it’s also very much a celebration of this specific friendship. It’s great to see really friends play actual friends, including the fighting.

AA: For sure. It was a real honor to portray this friendship, and as a director, I was telling myself “Just don’t get in the way of it.” There’s so much beautiful history and chemistry between Joel and Bowen. I would see them just chatting while we weren’t shooting, and I kept telling myself that it was that love and joy that I wanted to capture on screen.

As much as this film does hit a few rom-com touchstones. This is also a place where people go to hook up. This film isn’t afraid to get sexy and sexual. Talk about approaching it from that angle, friendship be damned.

JKB: It is an interesting balance, isn’t it? It’s funny too because neither Bowen nor I end up hooking up with anybody in the movie. It never really happens for us, and it’s ironic because my character has built his identity in some ways around that. And that’s why it’s important to make a movie about this trip because it’s a paradigm shift for this character, when he realizes that he has within him the capacity for a deeper connection than just that. I mean, there is sex in the movie, and I didn’t want to shy away from that. We didn’t want to sanitize that just because it was a big studio release. And kudos to Searchlight for giving us the leeway to put a gay orgy on Disney+ International.

AA: Two orgies. [laughs]

JKB: That’s right, two orgies. It’s a reality, but it’s not everyone’s reality in our community, and I wanted to honor that experience.

Director Andrew Ahn and Noah (Joel Kim Booster) on the set of Fire Island. (Photo by Jeong Park/Searchlight)

I won’t ruin how anything turns out for anybody by the end of the film, but I did think for a moment, because the film isn’t afraid to get real with some of the emotions, that you might leave Bowen utterly heartbroken at the end, because that would be very real for some people.

JKB: I think that’s probably the more realistic experience for people. It’s funny, I was tempted more so with my character, Noah, to do that, to have that not end well. But in the end, it was about honoring the Pride and Prejudice of it all, the Jane Bennett story, that was always going to end happily. I love rom-coms, I grew up worshiping at the alter of Nora Ephron and When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail, all of those movies. And this film was a really great opportunity to have these characters in a really traditional rom-com arc, especially for Bowen, and maybe something a little more ambiguous for Noah and Will. Maybe they’ll end up together and maybe they won’t; maybe they just have a nice dance and that’s it.

Andrew, did I hear that you’d never spent time on Fire Island before being a part of this film? 

AA: Yeah.

Okay, then Joel, when you first went, was it a life-altering thing?

JKB: It really was. I don’t think you realize how much weight to carry around as a gay person living in a hetero-normative society until that weight is gone, and suddenly, you’re a little lighter and experiencing things differently and freer, and that freedom affords you the opportunity to transform. For me, that was true. It was a really wonderful experience, especially to go with Bowen and other people I was extremely close to, and to bond over those moments. There is the toxicity that I depict in the movie as well, but it really galvanizes you when you go with your family. You not only experience those joys but the low points too. The moment in the movie when Braden says “I think you have the wrong house” has happened to be twice going into parties on Fire Island, and that’s really traumatizing. But I still believe in the power and the magic and the wonder and the goodness in the experience of going to that island.

So Andrew, as a newcomer, what did you do to get to know that location and capture it? Also, how did you go about capturing the controlled chaos of partying like this? When I watch other people have fun on screen, I get bored. They’re the ones having fun, not me.

[Everyone laughs]

AA: For me, being a Fire Island virgin, I asked a ton of questions. I asked Joel to tell me every story; I asked the cast about their Fire Island stories. I went to Fire Island as much as I could during pre-production. My cinematographer, Felipe Vara de Rey, and I went to the underwear party that happens on the island.

JKB: And I happened to be there, and it was a real shock to run into them [laughs].

AA: We ran into Joel by total coincidence. There’s something really special about seeing Joel in his element and not there for work, but just be there on the island. It was through that experience that I had a Fire Island crash course. In terms of filming people having fun, the reason why it works in this movie is because we care about these people. We know about their insecurities, what they’re facing in this world, so when you see them have fun, it doesn’t feel gratuitous; it feels earned and necessary, and you’re rooting for them and to see their fun continue.

Tell me about assembling this cast, because you said it was a lot of friends. Have any of them never acted before?

JKB: We’re certainly breaking new talent in this movie, and I’m really proud of that—we both are. They’re all trained and have done certain things before, but people like Zane Phillips, Tomas Matos, and Torian Miller have never done anything quite on this level before. And I think it’s a real testament about what can happen when you take a chance on someone. This industry is obsessed with…it’s this weird, circular logic of “We can only cast people who have experience,” but you can’t get experience until you get cast. It was wonderful that we pushed hard for the people we thought were best for these parts and brought them to life. We really rolled the dice because we didn’t do any chemistry tests, except between the love interests. Matt Rogers, Bowen and I go way back and are very close friends, but Torian I cast in a play here in Chicago in 2014, and that’s how I knew him. Tomas and Zane were completely new pulls, and it just happened that we all got along so well, and the chemistry was right. It was all very funky.

AA: We had chatted with Torian and Tomas over Zoom; I just wanted to get to know them. And for me, there were such good people and gentle souls, and I knew that that kind of heart would allow them to be a part of a story about chosen family. I knew they would get it and have instant chemistry with the whole cast.

None of us have mentioned Margaret Cho. Did you know each other from the stand-up world?

JKB: I have opened for Margaret a few times in the course of my career, and obviously, I’ve idolized her since I was a child. I’ve said many times, I can draw a straight line from [Cho’s first sitcom] “All-American Girl” to Fire Island. She really opened up the door for me as a kid about what was possible for someone who looked like me in this industry, so it was an incredible honor to have her in this movie. She was so wonderful and deferential, and there was no ego. Anytime she asked either of us for a note, we were like “Do whatever the fuck you want. You’re Margaret Cho. There are no mistakes to be made here.”

At the end, there is some indication that this trip may not happen again. Someone says, “This feels like the last summer.” Does that mean that you won’t revisit this place or these people down the line?

JKB: That’s the million-dollar question. I think it’s going to be either a franchise or anthology, different gay destinations around the world, and then we’ll return to it in 20 years. We’ll see.

See, I thought you were going to examine different decades on Fire Island, maybe using the same cast playing different characters.

JKB: Oh wow, that’s a great idea. I hadn’t even thought about that. I might have to credit you.

It’s yours. Thank you both so much, and best of luck with this.

AA: Thank you, Steve.

JKB: It was really great to meet you, thanks.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Default image
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.